Recognized as a revolutionary figure of Twentieth Century Post-War art, Sam Gilliam has helped define the radical and influential Washington Color School movement. Pac, painted in 1970, serves as an exquisite example of how he pushed the very genre of Color Field painting to an unbridled extreme. Created at the turn of the decade, two years before Gilliam would become the first American artist to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, Pac is a spectacular example of Gilliam’s signature ‘beveled-edge’ paintings. These revolutionary works, which the artist began making in 1967, were composed by pouring and splashing acrylic paint and pigment directly onto unprimed canvas, which was then folded and crumpled before being stretched over a distinctive chamfered frame. Spanning almost nine feet wide, and marbled with a glorious array of greens, blues, purples, pinks and reds, Pac exemplifies the exuberant color and monumental scale of the works Gilliam created between 1967 and 1973, widely considered the greatest years of his practice. The ‘beveled-edge’ paintings are closely related to the series of ‘drape paintings’ Gilliam created in the same period, which released the canvas from the stretcher frame entirely to interact with their spatial context in radical new ways. Pushing the canvas out from the wall into assertive, three-dimensional presence, the ‘beveled-edge’ works similarly emphasize their own objecthood. Gilliam blurred the lines between painting and sculpture even as his Minimalist contemporaries such as Donald Judd were seeking to reinforce that same boundary. Moving beyond the ideas of the Washington Color School – a movement with which artists such as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland were also associated – he reconceived painting as a performative, theatrical act, and took his medium into thrilling new territory.
The expansive composition is comprised of vertical bands, each with varying concentrations of pigment, which result in a rich display of overlapping translucent chroma. The ‘all-over’ chromatics of Pac seem to echo the bravura brushwork of Willem de Kooning, as well as the staining technique of Helen Frankenthaler. The almost neon force of Gilliam’s hues, and the resplendent variety of their form, texture and depth – ‘the more far out the better’, as Gilliam has stated – gives his work a unique energy, evoking what he calls ‘the drama of music and the drama of colors coming together’ (T. Loos, ‘At 84, Sam Gilliam Fires Up His Competitive Spirit’, The New York Times, June 12 2018). There is a dialogue between control and chaos in his pouring and folding technique that lends the work an expressive vigor unmatched by even the ‘drips’ of Jackson Pollock. This rich and variegated surface is the result of the artist repeatedly folding the canvas while the paint is still wet, allowing the colors and geometries to dissolve into each other. Gilliam would begin the process by soaking the lightest colors of the composition, like the tans and pinks in the present work, into the raw, unprimed canvas before applying the darker greens, reds and blues. He would then fold the canvas repeatedly back and forth on itself before leaving it to dry overnight. As they were unfolded, the evocative abstract forms were revealed for the first time, appearing like mysterious Rorschach-like forms embedded directly into the canvas.
Coming of age during the social and political instability of the 1960s, Gilliam was interested in disrupting the traditional distinctions between art, architecture and sculpture, in addition to investigating the properties of physically combining his chosen medium and support. After time in the army, years of teaching, and meeting the Washington, D.C. Color Field artists, Gilliam realized that while his training was essential, it was not entirely representative of his lived experience. “Ideas I was dealing with were mostly someone else’s. …What was most personal to me were the things I saw in my own environment—such as clotheslines filled with clothes with so much weight that they had to be propped up…” (Sam Gilliam quoted in D. Miller, “Hanging Loose: An Interview with Sam Gilliam,” January 1973). Thus, he began to work with different types of non-traditional canvas, such as the beveled example of the present work, or his draped canvas—unstretched, unsupported works folding in on themselves after being saturated in luminous hues and hung from gallery walls. Such a convention drove the liberating ideas of Color Field to their natural, if unseen, conclusion: if the image could be obliterated, so too could its structure.
Together with his Abstract Expressionist counterparts, Gilliam’s innovations with paint application and his radical transformation of the canvas support continuously expanded the possibilities for the future of abstract painting. Gilliam expanded and elaborated upon existing Color Field processes and aesthetics while turning on its heading the Greenbergian notions of the “integrity of the picture plane,” in addition to disrupting the boundaries between the visual world of painting and the tangible world outside it. Particularly during an era when African American artists were expected by many to create figurative work explicitly addressing racial subject matter, Gilliam insisted on pursuing the development of a new formal language that celebrated the cultivation and expression of the individual voice and the power of nonobjective art to transcend cultural and political boundaries.